Lost Island, part 11

Chapter XI (pages 143-158) of Lost Island, which began here.

There was no way of keeping track of the time. That was measured by the life-span of a leaf. Good to have done with it for once. Let the leaves go on measuring the infinite and whispering about it among themselves. The waves, too, kept up the cosmic rhythm, if one could entirely interpret and understand it. Jane never could. Sometimes it seemed that with just one more beat she would know what those waves were saying or singing. But it remained a mystery.

Every morning was the bursting of a giant pearl. Jane, sitting on the threshold of the cave, clasping her knees, would watch the confusion of clouds and lights in a sky that was like the iridescent lining of a shell. Light glinted warmly on the eastern edges of rocks, and on Jane’s shoulders that were uniform brown now. The well-developed muscles of her arms caught the light, too, and stood out copper-colored from the brown. Her hair was bleached several shades lighter; and Davidson’s beard was a good two inches long.

They would wait silently until the gold spears began to shoot out of the sea, making the colors grow pale — until the first great gold sparkle of the sun appeared, swelling fast, an enormous bud of light ready to burst into flower. They would raise their hands, then, in solemn salute to this visible god who ruled their island, their day and night, their warmth and light, their very food supply — the god of flowers and butterflies.

Then down swiftly to the sea. By now they both knew the winding ledges of the cliff so familiarly that they could take the trip almost at a run; and neither hot sand nor barnacles bothered their well-hardened feet, these days.

Then came the playful running along the shore, arms flung upward in joy. There was companionship with the young wind, and the thrill of bare feet pounding against coral sand edged with foam. The very air glowed with color. Blue and bright, the sea lifted and fell, tangled with the sun and a streaming soft wind like a golden brook. Flying hair, flashing feet — and all of a sudden the end of flight, the strong clasp of golden arms, a whirl of blue sea, and Jane’s face against a tawny chest. Then the plunge into restless waves, the coppery sheen of wet shoulders, and a shower of spray from the heart of a rainbow.

“Jane, you’re divine, all excited that way in the sunlight.”

“Davidson, Davidson, Davidson! Oh, it’s so beautiful to be alive!”

On top of the cave, but back a little way in a sheltered hollow, was a long flat rock which, along with some small stones strategically laid on top of it, served as stove and fireplace. For rainy weather, there was a fireplace in the cave as well, but for the most part they preferred the open sunlight, and the feeling that they were really out in the world.

The whole business of fire and firewood had involved a good many problems, a good deal of humorous head-scratching, and a little discouragement. At first neither of them had been able to make any headway with fire-building by approved primitive methods. They possessed a few dry matches, to be sure, but these couldn’t be expected to last forever.

“We’ve got to dope this thing out before they’re gone, in fact,” Davidson said. “Seems ridiculous, when it’s so damned hot, not to be able to concentrate a little of the heat in one small spot. I could, if I had a burning-glass.”

“I don’t believe we’d need any fire at all to fry an egg or roast a breadfruit right now,” Jane observed. “Say — here’s an idea! How about kindling a fire tonight with one of those enormous fireflies. That ought to work.”

He studied her face, which was solemn. “All right,” he said. “We’ll try that.”

Eventually, of course, they decided that the simplest method was never to let the fire completely die out. It was easy enough, when they learned the tricks, to bank up hardwood coals so that they would last till morning. Then, a few dry twigs and a little blowing was all that was needed. If it started to rain during the night, Davidson would inevitably get up and rescue some of the coals.

Fire opened up infinite possibilities as far as the prosaic matter of diet was concerned. Roast breadfruit, for instance, was an overwhelming success. It took a long time to cook it, but it was worth waiting for. Roasted bananas were another success. And then there were eggs. First they had tasted those of the gulls, which nested all over the cliffs. But these had such an unpleasant taste that they gave up the idea in disgust. However, one day they noticed that an entirely different sort of bird shared part of the cliff, farther around on the northeast side. They were smaller, and looked like some sort of pigeon. Their eggs, though small, were much more edible than those of the gulls.

Lack of any sort of utensil in which things could be cooked made it necessary to bake everything, even eggs, in hot ashes. One day Jane tried the experiment of cutting a cooked and steaming hot breadfruit in half, hollowing one half out a little, and breaking eggs into the hollow. Stirring them gently for a few minutes scrambled them. A little milk from a ripe coconut worked well for sauce.

“We’ve got no kick coming,” they agreed.

Furthermore, pigeons’ eggs were not the only ones available. Sometimes, at the far end of the long beach, Jane and Davidson would find clumsy tracks leading to mounds of sand full of round turtles’ eggs, left to hatch in the heat of the sun. Although they never happened to catch sight of the huge sea-turtles that laid these, they gathered them up whenever they found them, like treasure-trove.

The inside of the cave itself was a good deal more comfortable now. Davidson had hunted out the tiny stream that dribbled through it — tracked it persistently to its lair in the forest, and changed its course by building a dam of mud and stones at a strategic point. He declared that he hadn’t had such a good time since he was a kid playing in muddy alleyways. Not only was it fun, but it worked. After a few days water ceased dripping in the cave, and some of the moss dried up. Using the sail of the skiff for a basket, they carried bundles of dry pink sand up the cliff, and with this filled the hollows in the floor, until it was even and smooth. This also made the cave seem brighter. When they built an occasional fire inside, at night, the leaping reflections of its flames danced on that smooth hearth of sand, catching specks of gleaming mica. The roof and walls approached and retreated eerily; shadows leaned like lithe witches out of obscure corners.

The vines at the cave mouth had been skillfully looped back, so that, without being torn or damaged, they were out of the way, although they could be pulled down at any time to hide the opening as before. In the day time, it was now comfortably bright inside. Furthermore — luxury of luxuries! — there was a bed. Jane and Davidson had carried in armfuls of fragrant ferns from the woods, and piled them up high and soft. They did not seem to Jane quite as satisfactory as the fir boughs of the north woods, and after they were dry and crisp they rustled at every movement. However, they were comfortable enough, especially with Jane’s ragged old overcoat spread over them to keep the stems from sticking into bare skin.

Various arts which were new to both of them had to be mastered. For instance, fat pink shrimps, excellent food, abounded along the fresh-water streams of jungle and mountain. Davidson cut sharp-pointed sticks, and practiced shrimp-spearing, as he had once seen South Sea natives do; but at first he had a complete lack of success. Jane laughed heartily at his attempts, and was no better herself.

“Can’t be done,” was her verdict. “Besides, do shrimps really make such wonderful eating?”

He persevered; and one day, as much to his own surprise as to hers, he withdrew his dart with a small pink body impaled upon its point. From then on, having learned that it was possible, they both grew gradually adept. There was  plenty of time for practicing….

Breakfast was always a gay affair. Jane, still dripping, just out of an iridescent sea, would be sitting back on her heels by the fireplace, blowing on the embers, strategically arranging small dry sticks, looking up triumphantly when they broke into flame.

“What’s for breakfast, Jane?”

“Eggs. Does Your Highness prefer turtles’ or pigeons’?”

“Kingfish steak, please. We haven’t done much about solving the fishing problem, have we? Don’t you know some kind of magic you could sit in the sea and sing, enticing fat kingfish from all around? You look as if you ought to know magic.”

“I feel as if I ought. Some time I’ll try…. Turtles’ or pigeons’?”

“Oh, both.”

“You aren’t ever satisfied, are you, David? At least two kinds of shellfish, shrimps, eggs, and endless fruit and vegetables — and me — and you have to have fish, too.”

“You see, it’s still sort of a challenge,” he explained.

“You have to have something to hunt, is that it?”

“Yes, males are like that. And now that I don’t hunt you any more — don’t have to — ”

“You’ll take fish for a substitute,” she put in. “Well, that’s flattering. I’ve always liked fish.”

She would often spend an hour or two crouching close to the sea, where the cliff dropped abruptly into a great green hollow, so deep that even the sun rays got discouraged. Probably a paradise for sharks, scientists, octopi, great ancient oysters nursing fabulous pearls, and writers of adventure stories. At another place the bottom could be seen, crystal-clear, thirty or forty feet below. The wall of the cliff was spangled with myriad bright forms of sea life. Extravagant fish lived here, some softly iridescent as a rainbow, others garishly striped, some like blue metal, or fragments of exotic china. Some had streamers and some spines, and their bodies were of all imaginable shapes; long and thin, eel-like; flat and round, like a pancake; tiny as a needle; or so thin that they seemed to have only two dimensions instead of three.

Jane would watch and study their movements, trying to figure out just where it was that even the most agile of human beings failed so utterly by comparison in the matter of swimming. Maybe, she thought, if she watched them long enough, her own muscles would somehow absorb those subtle, simple techniques — those lithe bendings of brilliant bodies; strong swift flicks of tail and fins, poising in water like a hummingbird on air; dashes that her eye could not hope to follow.

Educated persons usually had a firm belief that they knew more than simple folk. Did they, really? And was their particular kind of knowledge worth while? Scientists, for instance, seemed to understand all about these fish. They gave them Latin names, observed their habits, looked at their brains under microscopes. Pretty low form of brain, too. There wasn’t much, presumably, that you could teach a fish. Their scholastic ability was not high. But did that prove anything about them? If so, what? Here, you might quite comfortably believe that they were a higher form of life than man. This was a far cry from the laboratory. Never mind their I. Q.’s. Beauty had been built into them — fiber by fiber, muscle by muscle, scale by scale.

Davidson was mostly interested in catching them. They presented, as he said so often, a challenge to his virility. He, too, studied their movements, but thought of them as prey rather than as teachers. And, bit by bit, a little clumsily at first, but improving immensely as it went on, he began to fashion a net of coconut fiber with a small mesh. This was a long, tedious job — the sort of thing that would have become drudgery if taken too seriously. Little by little they added to it. Often they worked on it for a couple of hours at midday, when it was too hot to be active — she at one end, he at the other, at first clumsily experimenting, later more dexterously twisting and weaving and knotting.

At first they had planned to make a garden, bring down from the hill such rooty vegetables as yams and taro, and planting them in a cleared space above the cave. Then they had abandoned that idea; it seemed like unnecessary labor.

“It savors of regimentation,” Jane protested. “Yams don’t want to grow in rows, any more than you and I do; besides, it’s more fun to go scrambling round for ’em all over the countryside.”

So, instead of making a spade and a hoe, Davidson concentrated his energy on an axe….

“No, not an axe,” he would explain to her. “You couldn’t call it that.” It was a hard, sharp-edged stone wedged into a handle of wood, and held there by a piece of wire which had been part of the skiff’s rigging. He contemplated this effort with a good deal of misgiving. “It isn’t a patch on the ones you see in museums made by the Neanderthal Man,” he asserted, shaking his head comically.

“Yet they say evolution is going on.”

“Nonsense! Here’s a case where it’s going straight backwards. What would Darwin make of this, for instance?”

“He couldn’t do as well himself, I bet,” Jane affirmed.

“That’s right. Stick up for your cavemen…. Funny, isn’t it, to think that some time some snooping scientist will find this axe, and take it home convinced he’s discovered relics of the Missing Link? He’ll be knighted and receive medals for outstanding scientific achievement!”

He swung his tool heavily at a dead branch. It came clattering down, and the axe stayed together. He looked at it, surprised. “You know,” he said, “this thing may really be of use when it comes to collecting firewood.”

“You’ll never have half the fun getting firewood with it as you did making it,” said Jane. “Better start on something else.”

“Oh, you’re beginning to know me, are you?”

Every now and then they would have a sort of wood-gathering fiesta. They dragged in dead branches that lay on the ground; they cut more, stacking them in a dry place at the back of the cave. They would work perhaps half a day at this, happy to be doing anything, no matter what, so long as they were naked and in the sun. Then, streaming with sweat, their backs glistening with it, their eyes stinging a little, they would dive from the rocks at the foot of the cliff, into the sea that was neither cold nor warm.

A fresh-water shower was also at their service, but for this they had to walk. First, through the woods, skirting the slope of the hill; across the meadow valley on the far side; then up the stream and into the forest again — wilder forest now, more like traditional tropic jungle. They crept under vine arches, and brushed aside great lacy fronds of tree-ferns. The moss all through here was deep and soft. It overhung shaggily even the edges of the brook, and spread out over boulders like a rich Persian carpet. The brook was the only pathway through this forest. They waded up its bed in silence. Every once in a while, when it slid over the face of a rock or was blocked by fallen branches, they had to leave it and make their way into the woods for a short distance. The ground was buried in centuries of dark uneventful leaf-fall.

There was an air of mystery about this jungle. You might expect to see owls with large yellow eyes and soundless wings staring from branches, feathered sphinxes without color, almost without tangible form. If you held out your hand, it seemed ghostly white. Great black columns of trunk loomed…. But Jane and Davidson had followed the brook before and knew the soft-footed way of this forest.

At last they broke out on to an open ledge between upper and lower reaches of woods. There was a pool of sky, and the woods parted in a glade, like a fairy circle. You could edge around toward the south, and the mountain wall dropped precipitously. There was nothing below but tops of giant mango trees with their leaves quivering in unison when the breeze marched through them, and gleaming with touches of sunlight. A cascade plunged hilariously from a height far above, landed breathless in a swirling pool, and spilled more gently on to the ledge where Jane and Davidson were standing — a sparkling curtain of water. Fine spray splashed out from where it struck the ledge, and made small rainbows. Jane would stand underneath the shower. Her hot skin thrilled as that fragrant water went rippling down between her shoulder-blades. She held up her arms to it, and her face; it slid between her fingers, and streamed off her ragged hair. She twisted and turned in it, and Davidson, waiting for his turn, would smile with deep approval, in which there was often a touch of awe.

“You’re the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen,” he would tell her quietly; and, knowing that he meant it, she loved to hear him say it.

That dash of water would reawaken her energy. She would glance at him dangerously. “So — you want something to hunt!” she would exclaim with a mocking smile. And she would be off down the brook again in a series of agile leaps, with him in hot pursuit only a couple of deadfalls behind.

In the woods it was a question of agility in dodging among trees, climbing over tangled barricades, hiding behind dense enormous ferns. Jane took pleasure in learning to do all this without damaging her feet or getting more than superficially scratched. She never wearied of the joy of being naked out-of-doors — naked near the earth, like a wild animal; and she had become, at least in the woods, more than a match for the tall Davidson, who tended to get involved in creepers. “I’d make a good spy,” she would boast happily.

But in the open — it was another matter. Up the hill through the long grass they would strain, he gaining at every stride; for, although her wind was just as good as his, or even a little better on account of so much swimming, his long legs more than made up that difference. Sometimes she would be far enough ahead so that she had a chance to hide; she would lie panting and perspiring in the grass, feeling it tickle her skin, her heart pounding hard; wondering if she had hidden herself too well. He would come chasing up; she would spring to her feet and be off again, zigzagging like a butterfly, until, almost completely worn out, with laughing as much as with running, she would feel a pair of long heavy arms thrown around her shoulders, and down they would tumble together.

He would turn her over gently, and caress her. “Silly! What’s the use of taking showers, anyway?”

“So we can run, and get dirty, and then take another one. That’s life, and a good sort of life, too.”

“Well! Am I acknowledged to be a good hunter now?”

“Am I good game?”

“You don’t know half,” he would tell her. “Aren’t you glad to be caught?”

“You’re a very conceited hunter.”

“Well, aren’t you?”

“That would be telling.”

“Most beautiful princess, do you surrender?”

She would, gladly.

Love to them was so simple and whole-heartedly natural that she often wondered what was the matter with it when civilization got hold of it. She remembered, dimly through her happiness, that she had heard only wild hysterical outcries, wails of despair over love. People thought of nothing much else, and yet thinking about it made them unhappy. There was alarm and panic; people lost their heads. There was insanity, and there were strange suicides….

In the main, life on the island was serene. It would even have been unexciting, except that it was always so beautiful. The adventures were little things, such as finding a new batch of turtles’ eggs in the sand, hunting fruit in warm misty rain when the woods were dripping, running in the early morning along the edge of foam in the wind. Leaves fell, but trees were never left naked and cold-looking. The process of budding, growing, falling never ceased. It was odd to have no seasonal changes. This took away their last opportunity to keep even a vague hold upon sense of time. There was the moon, of course. They had tried to keep track of how many cycles it passed through, but they soon forgot.

“Soon now,” he observed whimsically one day, “we’ll be watching each other for the first white hairs.”

As usual in the tropics, it rained more during one part of the year than during the other, and it was colder then. There were some days when Jane would throw her overcoat around her shoulders, and Davidson was glad he had saved his old flannel shirt. But for the most part it was luxuriously hot — tending to be too hot. In spite of this, Jane and Davidson remained fairly active a good deal of the time. They were determined not to let tropical climate destroy the zest of living, the pleasure of active exercise. For two or three hours in the middle of the day, however, they had to surrender, and rest in the coolness of the cave or the woods.

Primitive existence could not be entirely without misfortune. The worst hour Jane had ever spent in her life anywhere was when Davidson, with the only tool he had, his jackknife, one by one pried half a score of sea-urchin spines out of the bottom of her foot. She had lain flat on her back in the shade at the top of the beach, and concentrated every ounce of will that she possessed into the single act of holding still.

Minor scrapes and scratches were inevitable. The only disinfectant they had was sea water. These many minor wounds had to be left to nature and the sun. In general, the excellent state of their health prevented trouble. Once both of them had a bad time with bramble scratches that festered. After that, they were more careful of brambles.

There were plenty of insects, especially in the wet season; but after the first few months these did not seem especially bothersome. “The mosquitoes can’t hold a candle to the Maine ones,” Jane would cheerfully insist. However, she developed chills and fever, whether from insect bites, diet, or dampness, she had no idea. For a few days, while she lay helpless and miserable, Davidson was frantic with anxiety. He had no idea how to fight the thing, thousands of miles from quinine or a doctor. He kept her warm, and that was all he could do. For days she was weak and could eat very little. It was more than a month before she was her normal energetic self…. But aside from these episodes, their good luck was little short of miraculous.

Jane tried to make friends with the gulls and pigeons. The gulls, especially, were majestic creatures, with a wing-spread of three or four feet. She liked to lie and watch them circling about the cliffs, lighting on the rocks or in the sea, taking off, sailing, using the wind expertly. Let man try as he would, mechanically he had never approached the primitive perfection of a bird’s flight. Perhaps, she thought, airplane engineers ought to do as she was doing. She giggled at the ridiculous vision of long lines of engineers prone on their backs on tropic beaches, studying the way a gull used his wings. (“Make the poor gull self-conscious as hell,” Davidson said.) After she had watched a long time, she began to get the feel of it, to live those motions although lying quite still — at last she could almost predict each move the bird would make. In another day or so, if she could only absorb just a little more of this perfect philosophy of flying, she would be soaring up there with them.

But better even than to watch them flying, was to have one of them feed out of her hand. So far she had not had much luck with the gulls; but the pigeons were almost as at home with her as those in Central Park. This was the final touch needed to make her feel absolutely that she belonged here, sharing the existence of wild free things — one of them herself….

The fish-net was finished. That was another great achievement. They went out from the cave at dawn to try it in a little cove which Davidson had used more or less as a measure in making it. The floor was sandy, dotted with black sea-urchins; the sides were two rocky promontories. Gulls seemed to favor the place, and Davidson had often seen fish there. Stretching the net between them in a loose roll, they walked out toward the sea, Jane on one promontory, Davidson on the other. The whole island, each individual rock and wavelet, and their own bodies, were touched with an early goldenness that was like no other color on earth. But Jane hardly stopped to think of the picturesque side of this expedition. She was busy keeping opposite Davidson, keeping the net from dragging. She hardly even glanced at his splendid back and shoulders touched with bronze, as both them stooped to drop the net in the water. One side of it, weighted with a row of stones carefully wound up in the mesh and tied there, sank quickly to the sandy floor; the other side, floated on a row of wooden blocks, stretched between them across the cove. Then, slowly, with a steady pull, they dragged it back toward the beach.

“And I don’t expect there’ll be a single fish in it,” Davidson called across to her; but his voice told her that he was as excited as a little kid.

“There might be a pot of gold,” she called back softly.

When they were nearly in they could see that more than a dozen frightened fish were darting about in an ever decreasing semicircle on the shore side. Of these, a couple slid through the mesh, and another dodged around one end. They seemed to be all of one kind, about a foot long and marked with brilliant lengthwise stripes of blue and red and green, these colors merging into one another in a display of iridescence that would make a rainbow feel ashamed. Their eyes were black and gold; their beautifully shaped fins were thin leaves of silver.

Davidson’s face was eager with concentration as he maneuvered the big net the last few feet, and drew the fish ashore. “I think these are what Spanish sailors call ‘damsels,'” he said; and added impetuously: “Who said I couldn’t make a fish-net?”

“They’re too beautiful to eat,” Jane said.

“What’ll we do with ’em, then? Let ’em go? The first catch in my fish-net, and all that trouble?”

“Well, David, we can’t eat nine large fish in one day. Your net works almost too well…. Are you satisfied at last? Feel like big, virile he-man, and all that?”

He ignored her teasing, and just looked thoughtfully at the bejeweled creatures, flapping hysterically in the sand.

Jane spoke up again. “I suggest we keep a couple of ’em, and let the others go, as a tribute to various gods. We owe tribute to sea-gods, coconut-fiber gods, sun-gods, and gods of luck — also whatever gods arranged that color-scheme!”

“You pagan!”

“Of course! I’m getting religious in my old age. I’ve always wanted to be religious, only my gods have to be picturesque.”

Chapter XII.

Comments

  1. Bruce Edward Watts says:

    “great ancient oysters nursing fabulous pearls”

    Fabulous pearls indeed!!! This line simply sums up what a delight it is to read BNF. She may be gone but these words, these fabulous pearls live on forever.

    Bruce

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